The Normative Principle

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The Joyful Curmudgeon
Staff member
Here is an article by Peter Masters that I thought was very illuminating. I would like to understand this a bit better in contrast to the Regulative Principle. It has some good points and guides. Especially in relation to things we practice in our weekly observance of the LORD's Day. I do expect to read some more enlightening articles posted by you guys. Illumine Me. Thanks.

Is the Bible Always Binding for Today?

An article by Dr Peter Masters, Sword & Trowel 1995 Issue no 2.

HOW CAN WE TELL what biblical commands or examples are binding on the people of God today? What is normative? The term is relatively modern, but the question is as old as the faith. This question has never been more relevant, as we live at a time when numerous biblical principles are being discarded by many who appear to be Bible believers.

In fact, the new generation of believers is utterly confused by the present scene. Young Christians gain the impression that the Bible is an unclear book, not to be taken seriously as far as its details are concerned.

It is not good enough to defend the authority of the Bible simply by saying 'Everything in the Bible is to be obeyed.' Anyone can see that this is not so. The Old Testament ceremonial regulations, for example, are no longer in force. They are not normative for today. And what about the washing of one another's feet, or the command to greet one another with a holy kiss? Are these to be literally obeyed today? And should we work only with our hands, as craftsmen and labourers, as the great apostle seems to say? And should we be able to do signs and wonders, as the apostles did?

This brings us to the major problem. If some of the practices and apparent commands of the early Church are not for today, and some are, how can we tell which is which? Where are we to draw the line between binding matters, and nonbinding matters? Who is to say what is normative?

A cultural coat

One of the reasons why some things are not literally binding on us today is that they were cultural practices. The holy kiss, for example, was the accepted way of expressing peace and sincere regard in that culture, at that time. (It was, incidentally, performed only between people of the same sex.) In Britain and the USA the cultural equivalent is the warm handshake. We say that the command of the apostle "‘'Greet one another with an holy kiss' "‘ is to be obeyed in principle, but using our culturally equivalent act. An important principle (that of showing respect and friendship) is clad in a cultural coat, as the expression goes.

However, this way of interpreting the command produces a great problem. What about Paul's command that women should not teach men, or rule in the church? Some people are quick to claim that this was only commanded because the culture of the times required it. If we can dispose of literal obedience to one command on the ground that it is a cultural matter, could we not argue like this about many other commands in the Bible? Let us have women as preachers "‘ the biblical ban was only for cultural reasons!

This is exactly what is being said today about so many matters, and the Bible has virtually lost its authority as a result. If we look at some of the statements of faith drawn up by evangelicals in recent years, we find the sure evidence that there has been a massive loss of respect for the Bible. Whereas the old statements of faith would speak about the Bible's sufficiency (ie: it addressed every aspect of the life of the church) and its authority for all spiritual teaching and conduct, the modern statements give it a relatively small role. 'We believe,' they say, 'that the Scriptures are authoritative for salvation.' After this full stop there is nothing else said. The Bible is no longer considered authoritative for the conduct of the believer, or the organising of the church, but only for the message of salvation. Almighty God no longer has any command over His people.

Why do many modern evangelical leaders have such a low, low view of the authority of the Bible? Their answer is "‘ so much of it is subject to what they call 1 cultural conditioning'. It was done that way only because of the culture of those times. It was only temporary. Cultural conditioning has become the leading excuse made by so"‘called new evangelicals to justify indifference to the commands of the Bible. We need to have very clear standards by which to decide whether something really was cultural, or whether it was intended to be permanently binding and normative.

The Bible's own rules

Sometimes the accusation that we are guilty of relegating parts of the Bible to the level of 'temporary Truth' is levelled against those of us who reject the charismatic movement. When we say that the sign"‘gifts (of tongues speaking and healing) and the revelatory gifts (of prophesying) were only for the foundation stage of the Church, charismatics say, 'You are limiting the Bible. You are saying that many things in the Bible are merely temporary, and not for today. You pick only what you want, and you reject the rest as being no longer binding.'

Is this true? Are the signs and prophesyings for today? Once again, we need guidance from God in order to justify setting aside any part of Scripture as being 'only for those days'. This guidance must be clearly given in the Scripture. Are there standards or rules revealed in the Bible that give us the right to say something was only temporary? This article will show that there are. We are never to make up our own minds whether a command or example of the Bible is temporary or cultural. We are to decide on the basis of rules that are given in the Bible.

'Regulative' or 'normative'?

Before we come to these rules a word of clarification may be appreciated on certain terms. Writers on this subject refer often to 'the regulative principle'. Broadly speaking, according to the regulative principle, everything we do in Christian worship must be in exact accordance with the Word of God. If there is no precise command or clear example, we must not do it, because we have no express warrant or authority.

In the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England a very different view is taken. Here it is said (in effect) that the Church has power to formulate any rites and ceremonies as long as they are not incompatible with, or contradictory to, the run of scriptural teaching. This is a very 'loose' principle which allows the Church to stray down different liturgical bypaths, and concoct all kinds of services of which there is no sign in the Scripture. The regulative principle is much stronger than this. It insists that there must be a specific authorisation in the Word for every part of our worship. It keeps us firmly on the rock of Scripture.

Should the regulative principle be upheld by us today? Certainly it should be, but unfortunately even the regulative principle does not go far enough. The problem is that it is limited to matters of worship. We need a 'principle' that governs not only worship, but everything the churches do, including how they govern themselves, how they evangelise and work, and so on. And even further, we need a principle that tells us how to distinguish between the temporary or cultural parts of the Bible, and the ongoing, binding parts.

We will call the principle by which we determine what is binding in Scripture the "˜normative test'. Is something we read a pattern for us to follow? Or was it cultural or temporary? The normative test is the method of interpretation that enables us to decide.

At this point we must be aware that some evangelicals have suggested some astonishing tests to determine what is binding. Some have stated that Old Testament teaching and practice is only valid if it is repeated in the New. (They then point out that by this test the fourth commandment is no longer in force!) This test is obviously incorrect, because Christ treated all the Old Testament as the authoritative Word of God. Paul also says that all Scripture is inspired and authoritative (2 Timothy 3.16). The apostle Peter says the same. True, the New Testament teaches that the ceremonial law is fulfilled and cancelled with the coming of Christ, but this is quite different from saying that all the Old Testament is cancelled unless it is repeated in the New. This wayward test takes away at a stroke most of the Bible!

Some inadequate rules

There are other surprising tests suggested, yes, by some evangelicals. These include the following: Texts in the Bible are only binding on Christians today if they are (a) essential for salvation, (b) included in the life and teaching of Christ, (c) based on the nature of God, or (d) connected with the order of creation.

We have no need to study these ideas except to say that they sweep away most of the detailed practical directions given to us in the epistles. Most of these, they say, are merely temporary. Who are the evangelicals who suggest such tests? The new evangelicals, of course, who are always looking for ways of downgrading the Bible and taking away its authority. They do not like its rules, and they will not obey them.

Here are the Bible's own tests - all of them clear and obvious - for deciding whether a text describes something temporary or permanent. A text may be a command, or an example of conduct, or a principle, or a direction about church structure.

1 ALL SCRIPTURE is binding today unless Scripture itself sets a limit on the text. We have already noted how the New Testament cancels out literal compliance with the ceremonial law .

(though not its underlying principles, which continue to be quoted). Another example is the 'capping' of signs and wonders, as Luke says they were done only by the apostles' band, and other scriptures say they had a specific purpose - related to that time. On the other hand, there is no limit of time and place put on the texts saying how the church should be governed.

2 ALL SCRIPTURE is binding today unless it is modified (in the passage, or later), or contradicted elsewhere. We are to interpret any passage of Scripture in the light of other passages (1 Corinthians 2.13). An example of something being modified is Paul's especially strong exhortation to remain single in 1 Corinthians 7. He goes on to say that 'this is good for the present distress' (verse 26). An example of a duty which is later modified is the duty given by the Lord to the disciples who were sent to proclaim His coming to the Jewish townships (Matthew 10). They were to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out devils. They were to take no money or change of clothing, but to live on the hospitality of others. Are these commands binding today? No, because they were radically revised by the Lord at the close of His earthly ministry (Luke 22.35-36).

If a passage suggests a Christian duty, but it is contradicted somewhere else, this might show that we were mistaken in the original assumption that it is a Christian duty. However, great care must be taken over this, because some people see contradictions where they do not exist. New evangelicals, for example, put up phoney contradictions to Paul's clear directions against women preaching. Any reasonable mind can see that they press into service texts that do not contradict Paul's commands.(Eg Acts 2:17; 21:8-9; 1 Corinthians 11.5. none of these women were said to be engaged in public preaching.)

3 ALL SCRIPTURE is binding today unless an apparent duty appears obscurely in one text only, and is not even hinted at in any other passage. Once again we refer to the principle that Scripture must interpret itself, and that we must compare passages (1 Corinthians 2.13). If a teaching is unusual, isolated and exclusive, it may indicate that we are wrong to identify it as a binding duty. It is important to ask the question, 'Is it in more than one place?

4 ALL SCRIPTURE is binding today unless the passage records immoral or irreligious behaviour. This rule is obviously scriptural, for the ten commandments and other exhortations throughout the Bible condemn sinful behaviour

5 ALL SCRIPTURE is binding today unless it can be shown - and proved that the outward expression of obedience is variable in different cultures. (The rule of Romans 14.17 applies.) In other words, does the command wear a cultural coat? Is the principle important, but the manner of expression changeable? It is this fifth test that will be considered for the remainder of this article.

What, precisely, is cultural behaviour? It refers to a way of life to be found in one particular nation or region, which may have been handed down over generations. It refers to a package of social customs peculiar to that region.

Moslems make culture a religious matter. To them, true religion involves conforming to the clothing and customs adopted by Arabs ever since a special period in their history. Islam is largely cultural. Christianity is not bound to one culture; it stands above culture. In Christianity, spiritual and moral values are all-important, not the adoption of the culture of the East.

When, therefore, the Bible describes a practice carried out by Christians, we must distinguish between the spiritual and moral purpose of what was done, and the purely cultural aspect. To wash the feet of a guest (in the Bible) expressed humility coupled with courtesy, goodwill and helpfulness. It is the humility, courtesy, goodwill and helpfulness which are important in all generations. The washing of feet was the social custom of that time and place. In cold countries, where open footwear is not worn, and where the paths may not be dusty, it is not part of the culture, and would not be appreciated.

We ask ourselves: Is it necessary to adopt this particular expression of humility, courtesy, and so on? Is footwashing essential to God? Is it the only valid way of expressing the virtues listed? Most reasonable people would say no to each question. There is no unique spiritual significance or grace in footwashing. It was a practical courtesy, of that region at that time. It was the cultural expression of humility and courtesy.

To find out whether the literal expression, is binding for today (or whether the important matter is the underlying principle), we need to ask the following simple questions:

A. Was the act a social custom in Bible-times?

B. Could the underlying principle or purpose be equally well expressed in some other way? (In other words, the act carried out in Bible-times is not essential to express the principle.)

If the answer to both questions is 'yes', then the physical, outward act is cultural, and it is not necessary to carry out that act today, although the principle must be obeyed and expressed in the appropriate way for our time.

If both of the questions, or only one of them, is answered with a 'no, then the physical act of Bible-times is still essential today. It has ongoing significance, and we should observe it.

Tests for whether a Biblical Command is Literally to be Obeyed*

A Was the act a Social Custom
B Could the underlying Principle be equally expressed in some other way?

That we should work with our own hands

The prohibition of women from preaching and leading

The washing of feet

Greeting one another with a holy kiss

The Lord's Supper
NO (new)

NO (new)


The financial support of preachers

*TWO 'YES' ANSWERS = Culture is involved. The principle behind the command must be obeyed, but the manner of obeying has changed.

ANY 'NO' ANSWERS = The command must be literally obeyed. The form of Bible times is the only way to express the principle. It is above culture.

The chart entitled 'Tests for Whether a Command is to be Literally Obeyed' shows eight examples of New Testament activities. The questions A and B are asked and answered. This is a simple tool, and is intended to demonstrate that there is a simple system of reasoning behind the classifying of any biblical act as cultural.

Take the case of women who were not permitted to preach the Word to men, or to lead. Was this a social custom? Yes, generally speaking. The answer to this first question suggests that Paul's ban may have been for those days only. But the second question has yet to be asked. Could the underlying principle be expressed equally well in some other way? The answer to this, surely, is no.

How could the women remain silent in any other way than by remaining silent? It was certainly the case that culture required them to remain silent, but the Lord also requires them to do so. He commands that they should not preach or lead, and try as we may, we cannot think of any alternative way of complying with this command.

Equally, the apostle Paul gives a theological reason why women may not preach or lead. This makes it clear that while the culture of the day may have demanded this, God demanded it also for important spiritual reasons. Here, then, is something much higher than culture.

If either of the test questions receives a negative answer, it means that the precise form of obedience which is recorded in the Bible is vital. The command can be obeyed only in a literal way.

In the case of the command that we should work with our own hands as craftsmen, perhaps, or labourers, are all Christians to obey in a literal way? (Paul requires working with hands in Ephesians 4.28 and 1 Thessalonians 4.1l.) May we not be 'brain' workers?

Question A asks if the outward form of obedience in those days was a social custom. The answer is surely yes, for while there were brain workers, the overwhelming majority of people were obliged to work with their hands.

Is there an alternative expression?

Question 'B' asks if the principle underlying the command could be expressed in some other way. What is the underlying principle? It is (says Paul) that we should be able to live honestly, without stealing or scrounging, and also have the means to help others. These are the underlying aims of the command. Can they be met by forms of work other than manual work? Of course they can. Culture has changed, and the answer is, yes. Therefore (with two 'yes' answers), Paul's command was expressed in a form that suited the culture of the times. An important principle wore a cultural coat.

(No doubt the relatively few brain workers of Paul's day realised that he expressed this command for the benefit of the masses, intending that brain workers would realise that it applied to their type of work also.)

Baptism and the Lord's Supper are examples of activities that were definitely not cultural. Question A- Were they social customs? Absolutely not, in the form that the Lord commanded. The baptism of gentile proselytes to the Jewish faith was entirely different from the baptism of repentance inaugurated by John, and then ordained by Christ. Christian baptism was an innovation; never done before.

Similarly, the Lord's Supper was a deliberate change from the Passover supper, with new meaning and application. in neither case, therefore, could it be said that the Christian Church simply carried on an existing 'social' custom. Both ordinances were clearly newly designed for the Church of Christ. There is no cultural coat here.

Let us try Question 'B' Could the principles underlying Christ's commands be expressed some other way than that used by the early Church? How? How could we express total washing and death and resurrection other than by baptism in water? How could we express eating and drinking (the Lord's own picture for total reliance), as well as familiar communion, other than by eating and drinking?

In both cases, two negative answers to the test questions indicate that there is no cultural complication whatsoever. The ordinances are binding in the very form they were given.

No confusion

The purpose of this present article is not to review a long list of all Christian duties, but merely to establish that the Bible is not a mass of confusion. In today's climate of disobedience to biblical commands (among evangelicals), many believers are coming to the conclusion that the Bible is not clear. They say to themselves, 'If Bible teachers can hold different opinions on so many issues, then how can ordinary believers know what is right?'

New evangelicals drive Christians even further down the road of doubting the usefulness and clarity of the Bible. They say that the Bible does not set out to give a detailed code for the Christian life, or for the operation of churches. They constantly allege that there is muddle and contradiction in its pages.

However, they choose to see the Bible this way because they do not want to be ruled by it. The reality is that the Bible is clear and consistent, and it is relatively easy to see when a command is affected by the culture of the times by using simple questions of the kind presented in this article. The Bible is to be trusted wholly, for it is the inspired, infallible Word of God. It provides detailed commands and principles to govern all the activities of the individual believer and the church. It is the new evangelicals who are not to be trusted. They dislike the government of God in their lives, and they carry out constant 'character assassination' of the Bible. On the one hand they claim to believe it, and on the other they denigrate and minimise its purity and authority.

We do not claim that the principles set out in this article will solve all problems, although they should solve most of them. Some difficulties will remain, but this will not be due to any inadequacy on the part of the Bible, but to our deficiencies as interpreters. In all areas of life human beings are capable of disagreeing over the simplest and plainest matters.

Take, for example, the issue of whether head covering for women is binding today. (Readers will observe that this matter is not included in the chart accompanying the article.) The problem in this case is that the most conservative of interpreters will give different answers to the test questions.

Question 'A' asks - Was head covering a social custom? Most will answer in the affirmative. Certainly it was the social custom in Corinth. Question 'B' asks Could the underlying principle be equally expressed in some other way? At this point we encounter disagreement among the most ardent lovers of the Word. 'No!' say some. 'Yes!' say others. The former see in the head covering an unalterable command which has nothing to do with culture. The latter argue that the 'language' of dress differs from Old Testament to New Testament, from region to region, and from age to age, and that Christian deportment should generally be expressed in the dress language of the day.

A sure guide

We acknowledge that there will still be differences of interpretation, even between those who cleave to the Word, but this is a far cry from the confusion talked about by new evangelicals.

God has given a wealth of detailed prescriptions in His Word, saying precisely how things should be done in the church. One of the heresies of our time is the denial that God provides specific instruction on church order and behaviour. God's Word is always to be believed, received, and trusted. God, in that Word, teaches us how to know where there are exceptions to the general rule that Scripture is always binding.
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